Ulster have proven to be the team to beat this year as they head into 2013 with a 100 percent record of 11 wins out of 11 in the RaboDirect PRO12 despite tragic circumstances at the club.
Centre Nevin Spence, 22, passed away in September along with his father Noel and brother Graham after an accident on their family farm.
But the club honoured their rising star, who scored four tries in 33 appearances for Ulster in the RaboDirect PRO12 with some outstanding form which sees them top of the league.
Shane Williams’ last-minute try won last season’s RaboDirect PRO12 31-30 for Ospreys against Leinster in May but it has been a difficult defence for the Welsh club who sit sixth going into their Boxing Day derby against the Scarlets.
This year has also seen the formation of a new RaboDirect PRO12 team, Italian side Zebre, although they will hope 2013 will be kinder as they still await their first league win.
Edinburgh’s Tim Visser looks ready to chase yet another huge try total, and finish top of the charts for the fourth year in a row, as he already has ten this season – his record is 14 in 2010/11 – while 20-year-old Tom Prydie is leading points scorer with 97.
TRY OF THE YEAR
There are plenty to pick from but it is rare for a prop to get the accolade which is why WP Nel’s score for Edinburgh against the Ospreys gets the nod.
A fine team effort which saw quick hands, tricky movement and slick passing started with young fly-half Gregor Hunter slipping in Dougie Fife who quickly fed Richie Rees who then released Nel to dive over in a flowing move.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
An absolute mainstay of the Ulster side’s unbeaten march to the top of the RaboDirect PRO12, John Afoa has played 528 minutes of league action this season.
Despite the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble all doing the business at the back, Ulster’s success has been created through their dominant scrum – of which Afoa has been monstrous.
Men do not earn 36 caps for the All Blacks without reason and the 29-year-old has shown his talent in spades with some stunning performances at prop alongside Rory Best and Tom Court.
If Ulster are to go on and maintain their title charge they will need Afoa to continue his tigerish srummaging.
Ospreys’ flying winger Eli Walker has made the absence of club legend Shane Williams, following his move to Japan, barely felt with some brilliant displays in the No.11 shirt.
While Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy have also turned heads at Ulster, Gilroy earning a call-up for Ireland, and Simon Zebo looks to have clicked into gear at Munster, Walker has been the standout.
Two tries in his first three games of the season gave testament to his talent and the 20-year-old has screeched around plenty of grounds showing off his frightening pace.
As Ospreys assistant boss Gruff Rees said: “He has the attributes to do damage to any team in the world.” No doubt that will be an international side sooner rather than later.
There has been plenty to shout about in the RaboDirect PRO12 when it comes to the Lions tour to Australia led by Warren Gatland and surely Scarlets’ George North is a top contender for a place on the wing with seven tries already this season.
If the phenomenal 20-year-old is to make the Lions squad then the experience of Cardiff Blues centre Jamie Roberts inside him could be crucial. The centre has been a standout performer for the Lions in the past and will be desperate to prove his fitness to get on that plane.
A very strong candidate for the all-important No.10 shirt is Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton who has matured into the fly-half everyone thought he could become.
Ulster hooker Best has been part of a stunning scrum scrum triumvirate alongside Afoa and Court and another experienced head could be welcome in Australia.
And Edinburgh’s Visser has completed his residency qualification for Scotland and converted his RaboDirect PRO12 form into international try scoring for his country. His straight running and knack for popping up in the right place at the right time could be a huge asset for Gatland and co.